Processed foods and eating alone

processed food

processed food

More meals are eaten solo.  Is there a connection to processed foods?  Probably.

When it comes to food, “processed” is a four letter word.  When you hear processed food, what do you picture?  Cheetos, sugary cereal in bright colors, fast food burgers and sugary candies?  How about organic soy burgers, energy bars made with chia and flax, frozen broccoli, gluten-free pizza, Vitamin Water and tofu?  Yep, all of those are officially processed foos too.

Earlier this summer, a group of prominent nutrition scientists made the outrageous (to some) claim that processed foods might actually contribute to health, and have a place in our food supply.  Their main points:

  1. processed foods are necessary for a safe, varied, affordable and secure food supply
  2. processed foods provide key nutrients
"bad" processed: you'll know it when you see it?

“bad” processed: you’ll know it when you see it?

Other scientists weighed in, trying to tweak the definition of “processed”, with an endless chain of processing degrees to distinguish bad processed from good processed.  We have minimally processed, restaurant processed, ready-to-eat processed and so on.  David Katz MD or Yale tried to make sense of the argument, noting that some processed foods aren’t great choices, but others are fine.  Which is which?  His advice: you’ll know it when you see it; make the better choice whenever possible.

Food purists take a decidedly black and white view of food processing: you should only eat whole foods, no processing at all, pick and eat your food on the spot.  That presumes you are able to pick fresh vegetables in your large, bug-free, deer-free, rabbit-free fertile backyard garden, or perhaps gather fresh eggs from a racoon-and-fox-free chicken coop or nuts from your bird-free-squirrel-free walnut orchard.  People who live in cities or cold climates or deserts or areas with poor soil or little rain, or too much rain, will clearly be out of luck.

not good enough for some food purists

not good enough for the food purists

This impossibly perfectionistic argument makes the average consumer cynical and confused.  Almost no one wants to convert to a pious whole food diet.  If that’s the definition of healthy eating, people conclude that healthy eating is not feasible.  Why even bother opting for less processed food, as Dr. Katz suggests.

The processed foods discussion is not just an exercise in foo foo intellectual sparring.  New consumer data from the NPD Group shows that over half of eating occasions in the US are people eating alone.  Solo dining is the new norm, thanks to a host of lifestyle changes.  People are busy, they don’t cook, they live alone.  But all of that would be nothing without the most important change: our food supply is now set up to make solo dining easy, convenient and affordable.  From fast food to take out food, prepared meals, frozen meals, meal and snack bars and that pint of Ben ‘n Jerry’s or that bag of organic sweet potato chips.  Thanks to processed foods, eating alone is easy.

classic example of processed

classic example of processed

It’s a safe bet that most of those people dining alone are not cooking single meals from scratch using local organic ingredients picked in the back yard.  If they’re interested in healthier eating, they should be encouraged to make better choices when it comes to processed foods.  Pre-washed and pre-cut salad vegetables are technically processed, but they make healthier eating very convenient, even if they’re shipped from far away farms.  Frozen pre-cooked fish or poultry may be processed, but it’s a better choice than a constant diet of cheeseburgers.  Frozen pizza is convenient and comes in many varieties; if a person likes pizza, why not encourage cheese pizza with added vegetables.  It’s a better dinner choice than a bag of nacho chips drowned in fake cheese sauce.

The Take Away Message: the term “processed food” is pretty meaningless.  Almost everything we consume has been processed in some way, from simple washing and trimming to complete fabrication.  If you tend to dine solo, relying on processed foods isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  You just have to make the best possible choices.  How to make those.  Well, hopefully you’ll know them when you see them.  A bag of chips and a soft drink is not a meal.  It’s a nutritional insult.

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